Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Anita Desai, an Indian novelist and short story writer, grew up in the dying days of the British Raj and honed her craft as a writer in the wake of British colonialism. Much of her work takes up themes of disconnect, discussing generational differences, evolving traditions, cultural expectations, and the conflicts these rifts conjure. “A Devoted Son,” a short story published in the 1978 collection Games at Twilight and Other Stories, discusses these themes with an ironic twist. The story is fundamentally about the complex relationship between a son and his parents. Unlike much of her work—whose narrators reject or transform sociocultural expectations—the protagonist, Rakesh, dutifully embraces tradition and acts just as his parents wish, much to their later chagrin.
The eponymous son is conspicuously perfect. He is loving, dutiful, obedient, and successful. He is a source of tremendous pride to his parents, so much so that the neighbors stream into the parents' house "to congratulate this Wunderkind" and tell the father that his son has "brought (him) glory." The son excels in his studies, wins a scholarship to study in America, and then returns home to marry the "plump and uneducated girl" his mother chose for him. All the while, the son, Rakesh, bows down to his father and touches his feet. In post-colonial India, where parents feared the Westernization of their children, who might grow to reject tradition, Rakesh is the ideal child.
Later in the story, however, the son keeps his sick father alive by taking away the food he likes and feeding him pills. The father is told off by the son when he fails to follow the son's instructions, much as a doctor might rebuke a patient for not following his instructions. The father becomes resentful of his son and angrily insists that he be allowed to die. This dramatic change in the relationship between the father and the son raises questions about independence.
When he was younger, Rakesh dutifully sacrificed his agency to please his parents, even marrying the girl his mother chose for him. The father, in contrast, refuses to give up his independence, even if it is ostensibly for his benefit. Perhaps Desai suggests that such fathers who expect their sons to be so dutiful and obedient are hypocritical: they expect their sons to willfully renounce their independence but are themselves unwilling to do so. This hypocrisy is highlighted at the end of the story when the father essentially takes on the role of the child, and the son, conversely, takes on the role of the parent.
In turn, this hypocrisy raises other questions. What, for example, are the obligations and responsibilities of a father to his son and of a son to his father? Perhaps the father should allow the son a degree of independence so that the son can become an independent, self-determined person rather than merely a manifestation of his father's wishes. And perhaps the son is responsible, in part, for the father's quality of life when the father grows old, sick, and frail. Perhaps the main point that Desai conveys is that the son can only become the man his father allows him to be. If the father fails to meet his obligations to the son, then the son will inevitably fail as regards his responsibilities towards the father. The ending is bleakly ironic, as the father’s choices have led to his suffering. Rakesh has become the man his father wished him to be, yet he cannot abide by the consequences of his son’s well-trained devotion.